Baz Luhrmann: “The life of Elvis makes it possible to better understand the history of America”

Meeting with the Australian director around his overexcited evocation of the destiny of Elvis Presley.

Premiere: We feel from the first minutes ofElvis your desire to explode the codes of the biopic, to invent a form that would go beyond the genre…

Baz Luhrmann: I actually did everything possible NOT to make a biopic! I’m very good friends with Elton John – we even wrote a song together – and I would have loved to direct his biopic but, on second thought, I think that other people can do this kind of thing much better than me… I wanted to go further: to use the figure of Elvis to examine the state of contemporary America, with regard to the 50s, 60s and 70s. I envisaged his life as a giant canvas, which makes it possible to explore big ideas, bigger themes. When Shakespeare writes Richard IIIhe is not making a biopic of Richard III!

All the great moments in Elvis’ life, all the images of Epinal, are reread in the light of his relationship with his manager, Colonel Parker…

Some might ask the question: Was Elvis that interesting? You just have to dig a little to realize that yes, it was very interesting! And one of the most fascinating things about him is his long-standing relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Who wasn’t a colonel anyway, and who wasn’t called Tom or Parker! He was a corrupt man, but also a marketing genius. When you put Elvis and the Colonel together, a chemical reaction takes place that says something very special about America. On art and commerce. On creation and business.

You yourself, as a director of major Hollywood shows, are at the heart of this conflict between art and commerce…

It’s not necessarily a conflict. When these two poles are balanced, it is a good thing. But when that’s not the case, great tragedies can happen… If I wanted to make this film, it’s because I have the feeling that, for some time now, this relationship has been unbalanced. It is no longer a question of brands, of money. Creativity disappears. And Colonel Parker’s ideas are gaining ground…

Our review of Elvis

The whole first part ofElvis bathed in disturbing fairground imagery at the Nightmare Alley. It’s really amazing to see your film just a few months after Guillermo del Toro’s. However, it turns out that the 1947 version was Colonel Parker’s favorite film…

Yes, he was staring at him obsessively. I saw the film by Guillermo, who is a friend, and an immense filmmaker. The Colonel was an extraordinary personality, extravagant, incredibly charismatic, in permanent representation. He was, as they say in the film, a snow man, a barker, who tricks people and takes pleasure in it. There was something about him of the mentalist who plays tricks and tries to control minds. All that talks about Nightmare Alley!

You describe Elvis as a kind of superhero who had the power to reconcile America…

Yes. Through the songs. He was not a politicized person.

Not just through songs. Also through the question of race, sexuality…

Indeed, you cannot tell your story, or the story of America in the 1950s to 1970s, without confronting the racial question. In fact, if there was no racial question in America, there would have been no Elvis! As a young man, he grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood – much like Eminem. Later, he was one of the few white faces at Club Handy in Memphis on Beale Street. He lived immersed in music, which allowed him to invent his own mix of rhythm and blues, gospel and country. This style, once publicized by Colonel Parker, explodes. And that’s when things get political. Elvis was a rebel, a real rebel, the original punk. The racists of the South wanted to kill him, they called him the “white nigger”, they hung puppets bearing his image! In the 1960s, Elvis was somehow “whitewashed” by Parker, making him the highest paid actor in Hollywood. But he rebels again, and, in shock at the assassination of Robert Kennedy, sings If I Can Dream in the “Special” from 1968. The Colonel was against the idea of ​​recording a political song, but Elvis was a fan of Martin Luther King. He could recite “I Have A Dream” by heart. This scene that we see in the film, when Elvis takes control of the Special TV against the Colonel, it’s his way of bringing comfort to a country that is suffering.

Baz Luhrmann has a 4 hour edit of Elvis

You conclude the film with this exceptional version ofUnchained Melodywhich is precisely the song that actor Austin Butler had chosen to perform in his video audition…

I saw this video of this young man singing, crying. It was crazy emotionally powerful, because it was obvious he wasn’t acting, it was real tears. I then learned that Austin had lost his mother at the same age as Elvis, and that it was her he thought of while singing. Then Austin came into our lives, he worked like a madman and, whatever one thinks of the film, no one can dispute the extraordinary accomplishment of this 29-year-old actor, who sings, dances, and interprets the life of Elvis from his youth to his death. We showed the film in test screenings and I couldn’t find a single person who wasn’t impressed with its performance. Even people who are totally uninterested in Elvis. Jay-Z is a great friend, I showed him the film, and when he left he said to me: “I didn’t think much of Elvis before that, but the movie is insane, and Austin humanizes him so much… You changed my mind!”

Does that mean there is no consensus on Elvis today in America?

No way ! A journalist from New York TimesMaureen Dowd, wrote an article about my film, in which she recalls that Chuck D said that Elvis was racist (in Fight The Powerfrom Public Enemy, in 1989: “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant s*** to me / Straight up racist that sucker was / Simple and plain / Mother f*** him and John Wayne”). I’m not attacking Chuck D, but a few years ago he finally admitted: “I had no proof of what I was saying, I made Elvis the scapegoat”. The consequence is that an entire generation believes that. Historically, the first people to accuse Elvis of racism were white people who resented him for crossing the racial line and wanted the black public to turn against him! What is true, however, is that with the help of Colonel Parker, Elvis earned mountains of money from his music. And that it was not until Michael Jackson that a black artist could earn such large sums. But Little Richard explained that Elvis, by covering his songs, allowed him to sell more records. James Brown sang a song called My Brother Elvis… This idea that Elvis had a problem with people of color is just plain wrong.

When you put contemporary rap sounds on the sequences taking place in Beale Street, the “cradle of the blues”, we hear Doja Cat to resume Hound Dog, is it to set these debates around the “political” legacy of Elvis to music? Or to convince the youngest of the modernity of his music?

There are several functions to this. Before Elvis recorded it, Hound Dog is a song by Big Mama Thornton. Which, by the way, was written by two Jews. The lyrics of the song, at the time, were considered raw, bold, shocking. But Hound Dog does not shock anyone today! So when Doja Cat sings this song (Vegas, the first single from the soundtrack of the film – editor’s note), she translates Hound Dog in contemporary language. Something a little daring that today’s audience can understand and make their own.

Elvisby Baz Luhrmann, with Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge… Currently in theaters.

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